Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Field trip! Field trip! Field trip!

I had my first real work with microfinance today—met a dozen boat-owners, part of a group that’s agreed to upgrade their boats (for safety and aesthetic reasons) with support from a grant funded by Banesto (a Spanish bank) and administered by ASSET. Present at the meeting, in addition to the boatmen and me, were Badu, the office manager at ASSET, Daouda, the project liaison, and Peter, a sixty-something Dutchman(?) who’s been living in The Gambia for twenty-eight years and helping the boatmen engineer structural upgrades for several.

The most striking thing about the meeting—and the whole process of setting up this project, which has been under negotiations for nearly a year—was how reluctant the boatmen were to take the money; how worried, even angry, they were about various restrictions and requirements. The main bones of contention were insurance, which ASSET insisted was necessary to upgrade their licenses and compete with larger boats but the boatmen felt would be too expensive, and the payback schedule. The boatmen were also concerned that ASSET might not do enough to negotiate with the “glam tour” operators to get more clients for the boatmen, so they could make enough money to pay back the loans. The meeting was mostly conducted in Wolof, the local language, so I’m making some assumptions based on body language, intonation, the bits of English sprinkled in, and the summary-translation given to me by Badu and Daouda.

It makes perfect sense that the boatmen would be apprehensive. Even without speaking their language, I could see how different their lives and perspectives are even from the ASSET representatives, let alone the bankers they’d be indirectly indebted to (no shoes, missing teeth, mismatched clothes, gnarled hands, discomfort with chairs). Taking on debt is anathema to these folks who’ve always lived hand to mouth, and for whom the last couple seasons have been particularly delicate. Yet I’d simply never thought about any of that. In the U.S., the focus is always on raising capital with which to fund microfinance, or perhaps finding local banking partners to work with. I always assumed the actual lendees would be chomping at the bit for the chance to acquire some capital. But what seem piddling sums to those of us in a position to loan ($25 is the minimum loan at www.kiva.org) mean all the world to people for whom the old Dickensian proverb applies acutely ("Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.").

Yet in a sense the boatmen are getting an even sweeter deal than they realize: Banesto is offering the money to ASSET interest-free; it’s actually a grant, but ASSET is re-packaging it as a loan (still interest-free but with a nominal administration fee) so that the boatmen have a real incentive to complete their renovations and pay the money back. In most situations microcredit is offered only with interest, either a low rate only to cover costs (as with www.kiva.org), or, in some cases, a very high rate, to attract investors and motivate debtors (as with the groundbreaking Yasmeen Bank). Success has been achieved with both models, which suggests that the genius of microfinance lies not in the administrative details, but in the basic availability of credit to those too small to get any from traditional sources.

Just as abruptly as the boatmen raised their objections, they dropped them. (This reminded me of a meeting between government meat regulators and a group of peasant farmers I’d attended in Chile: disempowered people often don’t really want to object to offers of help so much as they want to seize the opportunity to be heard.) They agreed to nominate five amongst themselves to take a share of the money and renovate their boats; allow ASSET to negotiate a new group insurance policy on their behalf; and agree with Peter on a model design for safer, more attractive boats. By Friday or Monday, hopefully, we’ll meet again and learn who the specific lendees will be, and how the remaining financial and legal challenges will be resolved.

This is all pretty exciting to me, even though it would be easy to get discouraged by the amount of red tape and bureaucracy and politicking that threaten progress even in such a humble situation as this. But it reinforces what I already knew: just as much as the first world is clueless and selfish, and could do vastly more to help the developing world with minimal sacrifice, it’s ultimately those in the developing world themselves who must work toward change; a hundred well-intentioned, non-expert foreigners like me are no substitute for a single educated, skilled, organized, energetic, enterprising local.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Across the pond

When I was ten or twelve, I saw a PBS special on a train that ran all the way across Australia. I don't remember any shots of the ocean on the Eastern side, probably because the journey began in Sidney or some other metropolis. But I distinctly remember the end of the journey in Perth: the camera trained on the Indian Ocean for what seemed like hours, in silence, as the credits rolled. There was something very different about it, I felt, from the Jersey Shore, the only ocean I knew. I wondered then if every ocean was different somehow; if you were plopped down disoriented on an unknown shore, would you be able to tell that it was the Atlantic vs. the Indian vs. the Pacific? I'm not talking about obvious difference in shoreline, but the water itself. Australia seemed like the extreme and obvious case, since it was all the way on the other side of the world from "my" ocean, the North Atlantic. But could there be discernible differences even between less extreme contrasts, like two sides of the same ocean, or the North and South of the same ocean?

I hate beaches. Most people seem to think that's akin to saying "I hate sex," so I have to justify it by explaining that I'm not a strong swimmer, I burn at the drop of a hat (literally), I can't stand heat, and I don't enjoy lying around like a vegetable. Nonetheless, my travel habit has brought me to quite a number of beaches all over the world, so that I've had the chance, sometimes despite myself, to test my childhood question.

A week ago tomorrow I dipped my feet in the ocean here in The Gambia, and I joked to my co-worker, "Well, I guess I can go home now, I've been to both sides of the Atlantic." It felt like a big, symbolic moment. But later I began to count all the places I've met the oceans of the world, and I realized this was not quite such a first as I'd thought. (I'd already been to the "eastern" Atlantic in Ireland, Scotland, France, Portugal, Gibraltar, and Morocco, and to the "western" South Atlantic in Rio, Puerto Madryn, and Ushuaia.) But my conclusion remains the same as it was some twenty years ago when I gazed in wonder on the TV: every ocean is different, and further, every major part of every ocean is different.

So what's special about the Gambian ocean? Well it's quite a bit warmer than the Jersey Shore, or even Florida, not surprisingly, and it's a bit brackish with plant matter, but it maintains that greyness, that choppiness, those short abrupt waves, as any other part of the Atlantic. Yes, as different as it may be in weather and shoreline, it claims clear kinship with the coast of Maine, or Normandy, or Scotland--which is as far north as I've gotten. I'm not clear exactly where it changes over into the Arctic Ocean. Spinning a globe makes those boundaries seem pretty artificial, but looking at the water from various shorelines suddenly legitimizes them.

No one would dispute, I don't think, that the Indian Ocean is unique: it could impersonate the Caribbean in color and almost in calmness. I've only been to its western edge, in Zanzibar, but it looked very different from my memory of the TV footage on Australia. Someday I hope to make it to western India to complete the comparison. Nor would anyone dispute that the Arctic Ocean, half-frozen as it is, is special. (I wrote a whole essay on the uniqueness of the "Antarctic Ocean" despite official claims that there's no such thing. So perhaps we'll need a special category for extreme South Pacific and extreme South Atlantic.)

It's the Pacific, for me, that cements my theory. Though I've never been to its western shores, every part of its eastern edge I've seen, from Punta Arenas (southern Chile) to Seattle, and even Easter Island, with many stops in between, has been exciting in just the same way: the deep blue color, the rich foam, the huge waves rolling in seemingly all the way from Asia, and the gallons of fresh, brisk, invigorating air it churns up. (And then there's that vast cornucopia of seafood they haul up in Chile, compared to the relatively paltry catches in Argentina.)

So yes, I've become so jaded that I'm "ranking" oceans. I won't dispute it, but my point remains not that the Pacific is "best," but that every ocean is indeed a world of its own.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (book review)

I'm taking a departure from my travel posts today to report, semi-relevantly, on a book I just finished: it's about Africa, and I prob. would never have picked it up if I hadn't been going to Africa, and never would have finished it if I hadn't been on "Africa time."

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a book this much. Like the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it has everything: fighting, romance, poetry, exotic setting, political undercurrents, growing up, humor. It reminds me how high a value I place on a child’s point of view, and a believable voice distinct from the author’s. It’s sad that these things are so rare, but that much more satisfying when they’re done well. It also reminds me that purple prose and direct, simple narration need not be mutually exclusive—nor do “literature” and an action-packed plot. Some might say Courtenay gets carried away with flowery lyricism at times, but, having traveled through South Africa, rightly renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful and starkly varied countries, and survived the apocalyptic-seeming turmoil of childhood, I find it not only appropriate, but imperative. Some might also complain that the book weakens its anti-racist message by letting whites dominate the cast, and even at times portraying blacks in a paternalistic fashion. But to me these potential weaknesses are more than balanced out by the great, direly underestimated finesse of telling a tale which is true on the personal level first, political second.

It is perhaps a “boy” book, though I have as little interest in boxing, or other sports, as anyone, yet I found myself engrossed by its minutiae. To me it is the novel Invisible Man should have been: vivid and compelling in particulars from which the larger themes emerge, rather than gesturing vaguely toward grand themes and coyly if not incompetently withholding real-world particulars. The fact that we never learn the narrator’s real name, for example, somehow seems quite natural in The Power of One but painfully forced in Invisible Man. And while the basic metaphorical premise of Invisible Man is plenty powerful, we never learn why that narrator should become personally obsessed with it, or how it germinated in his individual mind, whereas “the power of one” emerges naturally and directly as Peekay’s way of explaining and directing his own experience, based on real conversations we’ve seen him have with specific characters. It reminds me some of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in how it operates on two totally different levels: a thriller and a philosophical challenge at once, deftly switching from the simplest style and physical detail to the most poetic and spiritual.

As much as I didn’t want the story to be over, I’m glad we don’t quite see Peekay win in the end. The last section seems a bit tangential, but it lets the reader know that the hero has completed the full spiritual journey, even if he never beats the longest of odds to reach his personal goal—indeed, one senses that his actual, more personal but modest triumph may have finally convinced him that his goal of world champion boxer is in the end superfluous.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to be reading this book in Africa, even if The Gambia is a long way from South Africa. South Africa somehow got a great place in line when talented writers were being handed out. Of course it has a long, complicated, and tragic history to draw on, but there seems to be even more to it than that. Tragedy, turmoil, and cultural melding abound throughout the continent, but only at its southern tip has their representation in literature blossomed so. For better or worse, the writers of South Africa have become spokesmen for the whole continent—and The Power of One is as good an embodiment of their message as any I’ve yet encountered.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Overland from Dakar to Banjul

Every Peugeot station wagon in the world lives in Dakar, at a huge dirt lot called Gare Routiere. Most are 505s, 20-30 years old, and a few are 504s, 30-40 years old. They look terrible—painted over and over like front steps, missing light-covers and wheel-covers and gas tank doors—but they seem to run fine. Peugeot wagons were always oddly high-sprung in the rear, and these look jacked up even further, as if they’re waiting to pounce—or tip over. We owned a 504 and a 505 when I was a kid, and everyone thought my father was strange to buy them, prone as they were to rust and sudden breakdowns. But they were always surprisingly roomy, even more capacious than “full-size” American wagons, the careening, marshmallow-sprung Chevy Cavaliers and Buick Roadmasters. Volvos might have been sturdier, and certainly preppier, but they couldn’t begin to devour people and luggage like the funny French machines. The 505 wagon had a six inch longer wheelbase than the sedan, giving it a back seat that was positively limousine-like, in addition to a “way-back” even a family of four on a week-long camping trip struggled to fill. But I realize now that our friends were right to look askance: Peugeot wagons were not meant for American families; they were meant for African mass transit. The pale metallic blue one we traded in fifteen years ago may well be plying the roads of Senegal even now.

Africans have a way of milking more from a machine than even its original engineers imagined, and the Peugeot wagons serving as sept-place (seven place) taxis are a prime example. Fitted with a third row of seats, these erstwhile five-passenger vehicles are made to carry seven passenger plus the driver plus baggage. Quarters are more than tight, but that this carrying capacity is even possible testifies both to the roominess of the vehicle and the determination of the Senegalese. While buses and minivans commonly lash luggage to their roofs, or stow it underneath, the Peugeots coolly cache it in the back right behind the passengers. During the trip I grew weary of holding my smaller bag in my lap, so I simply reached back and stowed it atop the bigger pieces behind me—with room to spare.

I left Dakar before 6:30 am and didn’t arrive in Banjul until after 2:30 (a 97-mile distance)—most of that time was spent in the Peugeot, bouncing over small potholes and dipping off the paved road onto the dirt shoulder to circumvent bigger ones. It wasn’t too bad until my bladder filled up, after which every bump and lurch become so agonizing I prayed for a temporary stop, until a stop came and the heat intensified so much that I hoped only to start going again. It was well over 90 and humid, with the only shade coming from the roof of the car, which my head was pressed up against. We never stopped long enough to get out, so I became afraid to drink any water. The ladies in front of me refused to open their windows more than a couple inches, exacerbating the oven-like conditions. For much of the journey they engaged in a heated political argument with the man next to me in Wolof (the local language), apparently worrying the question of which was better, Gambia or Senegal. (“They always fight about that,” Mariama, the assistant director of the volunteer organization, told me later.) With my legs buckled up almost to the point of paralysis, it was sensory overload of a most unpleasant sort.

I’d been warned to demand the front seat, even if it meant waiting for the next car, or tipping the driver. But the Gare Routiere was so chaotic, and my French so clumsy, that I was afraid to negotiate, so I took the first seat offered, which turned out to be the seventh place in the seven-place. I’d always rationalized my discomfort with similar public transit contingencies in Latin America with the reminder that I’m a giant by Latin standards, so what’s cramped for me might be fairly comfortable for locals. But the Senegalese are not small people—the man next to me was about my height, and the women weren’t a whole lot shorter. Yet by the end of this journey I was a sweating, stumbling zhombie who all but leapt in the pool when I finally reached the hotel. It was one of the most uncomfortable voyages of my life—and I’ve been on quite a few—so I’m left with no choice but to affirm the cliche that the locals are somehow “just used to it.”

The sept-place dropped us at the Senegal-Gambia border, where I fended off moneychangers and followed my nose to passport control. Even compared to the no-electricity bush crossing from Uganda to Tanzania, this was a surprisingly casual affair. Scarcely any English or French was spoken; I practically had to beg to have my passport stamped, and the officer didn’t really seem to know what to do with it, simply scribbling some numbers and letters in a giant ledger and fiddling with a stamp he apparently never used. On to the Gambian side, things were about the same, except I had to spend nearly half an hour with a guy who looked no more than nineteen and claimed to be a drug enforcement officer (producing an ID card that looked like an elementary school art project) as he made me take out and open every single item in both my bags. It became clear, as he complained that my “nice shoes” couldn’t be bought in Gambia, and admired my Ipod, that he was more interested in playing with my toys than eradicating drugs. I did my best to be friendly, despite his halting English and my bursting bladder.

Next was the taxi-ride to the ferry stop, a half-hour-long relatively smooth procedure involving a subcompact car, the driver, two adults, two children, and me. The ferry itself was a breeze, both literally and figuratively, even though I had to duck under a dozen market stalls and over as many stray cats, dogs, and chickens, following my taxi-companions, to the ticket office. I’d been warned that the ferry was “pickpocket heaven” and a “crush of humanity,” but I found plenty of space on the top deck and enjoyed the grand views across the massive mouth of the Gambia River, rivaling the Rio de la Plata between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, wider by far than the Mississippi Delta or the upper Nile or Amazon.

Day trip to Lac Rose

I let Papi (my Ile de Goree guide) talk me into hiring him and a car and driver for a day trip to the pink lake and tortoise sanctuary—the former was considered a “must” by both the travel nurse and the LP; the latter I’d never heard of but sounded interesting. Mainly I wanted to get out of Dakar, which had proven short on tourist attractions and long on hassle. I expected that I was overpaying both the “real” price and my normal budget when I bargained him down to $100, and that it would be a lot less interesting than the last excursion on which I’d spent so much money for so little a time, the Aral Sea. But when you expect little, it’s hard to be disappointed—or so I told myself.

Lac Rose has an extremely high salt content, which is what makes it pink. During the rainy season, however, it gets sufficiently diluted to lose most of its signature color. When we arrived it was barely pink from shore, but pretty convincing once we got out on it in a “pirogue” (boat) with a salt-collector. We poled out to where his colleagues were standing up to their chests in water, pounding and scraping the lake bottom with six-foot-long hoes, dredging up piles of dripping salt which they passed to a partner in the boat, who sieved it through a fishing net. When full of salt, our boatman said, the boat would weigh 100 kilos. The digging process looked akin to Sisyphus rolling the boulder back up the hill: an enormous amount of pounding and scraping to produce only a few pounds of salt, much of which was water. It seemed they’d be lucky to fill the boat before dark, and the sun was remorseless. Even for these “professionals,” the work was too grueling to do every day: they worked four days a week and rested, ate, and pre-hydrated the other three. This is, of course, yet another example of the forgotten luxury of the American lifestyle: not what we have—TVs, cars, A/C—but what we don’t—backbreaking physical labor. Much of the salt wouldn’t even be high-quality enough for the table, but usable only for road-clearing and the like, meaning it would fetch only a pittance.

The shore of the lake resembled the salt-flats of Utah, but with piles and sacks of gathered salt everywhere, and colorful, ramshackle wooden boats here and there. The only sign of life, apart from a few boatmen, were men selling sand-paintings and women dressed rather like the Chiquita banana lady—whether consciously or not I wasn’t clear—all but demanding that I take their pictures, holding out slips of paper with their name and address for me to “send a copy.” This was obviously a ploy, since their head-baskets were filled with jewelry and trinkets; if they couldn’t extract a coin or two for the picture, they’d surely find a way to earn it back in beaded bracelets. They seemed rather shocked that I refused their advances so completely. I wouldn’t have minded a picture, and I don’t object to people charging for them, but I don’t like photography, which has the potential to be a form of spontaneous cultural exchange, reduced to a forced transaction. Nonetheless, the irony of the situation was not lost on me: one of the women was young and quite pretty, and I wondered when else in my life I’d be in the position to refuse to photograph, or talk to, or take the address of, an attractive woman.

Aside: Gambian women have the most wonderful posture: walking down the street in their semi-traditional garb (long batik skirts and headdresses with coordinating t-shirts), they somehow look even taller and more slender than they really are, as if the exaggeratedly long, lean figures in all the batiks and paintings aren’t exaggerated at all. Westerners slouch and swagger terribly by comparison. It’s commonly acknowledged, by Westerners at least, that “the women in Gambia do all the work,” and “if you want something done, you’d better talk to a woman.” Yet rather than bend their backs with fatigue, this labor seems to have lent women a special pride. Notwithstanding this, on the drive from Senegal I saw more than a few women stooped in the fields over ridiculously short hoes, digging away at the earth in that pose that always reminds me chillingly of slavery, the butt higher than the shoulders, the back seeming to know all too well how to bend.

The highlight of Lac Rose was swimming in it. True to legend, I floated like a feather. I’m not a naturally buoyant person, yet the salt made the water so heavy that I actually struggled to swim, much the way one does when wearing a life-jacket, or arm-floaties. It helped that the day was viciously hot, and the water so warm it wasn’t even shocking to immerse yourself, yet still cool enough to be refreshing. Afterward I paid a man to douse me with several buckets of water cold enough to make me wince, including, at his insistence, two buckets each down the front and back of my swim-trunks. All well and good to wash away the salt, I suppose, but this may be as close as I’ve ever come to paying for pain.

We had an extremely leisurely lunch of yassa poulet, broiled chicken breast with rice, onion sauce, and red chile sauce, the same thing I’d had the day before on Ile de Goree. Papi had said he always has fish for lunch and meat for dinner, but there are no fish in Lac Rose, while chicken farms surround it, thus this was the specialty. It was very good, though I don’t know that I would have guessed it had been slaughtered minutes before reaching the table.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Where's Barbaro?


Banjo reminded me that folks might like some help locating Senegal and Gambia on a map. So here's the big picture, and the close-up. Ile de Goree, the subject of my last post, is a tiny island off to the west of Dakar, which is itself squeezed onto the Cape Vert peninsula, the westernmost point of the continent.

If you've got a couple minutes to kill, have a go at the African map quiz. I play this with my students sometimes to introduce Things Fall Apart; rare is the student who can get more than 5 or 10 correct: http://www.ilike2learn.com/ilike2learn/africa.html

If The Gambia (and yes, for some reason the article is part of the name) looks like a tiny British toehold in a sea of French former colonies, that's because it is. Surprisingly, though, one of the reasons the Brits were so eager to wedge themselves into this particular corner of the continent was to enforce the abolition of slavery (against the less-compliant French, presumably). So it's not all greed and aggression, I guess. A number of freed slaves from Sierra Leone were offered a home in what's now Gambia.

Today the border may in some ways be even more important, as a great many Brits, and some people from other English-speaking countries, flock to Gambia while passing over Senegal and all its francophonic neighbors simply because English is spoken. I'm wondering about even more trivial differences, i.e. must I really buy two separate phone cards, and carry two different currencies, for these two countries?


I'm taking a breather from my habitual overland odysseys this year by joining a volunteer project in Fajara, a beach resort outside Banjul, Gambia--starting tomorrow. I'm just passing through Dakar on the way in, because it's basically impossible to fly direct to Gambia, and St. Louis, in the north of Senegal, on the way out, because it seems worth an extra week. (NB: It sure seemed impossible to book a flight into Gambia from the US, yet the flight I was on, Brussels Airlines, turns out to have been headed straight to Banjul; Dakar was only a stopover. Someday, after I've computed pi to a round number and split the atom manually, maybe I'll figure out the airline industry.)

People keep asking me, quite reasonably, what I'll be doing, but I know enough of how the developing world and volunteer organizations work to know that the only reasonable answer is "whatever I'm told." In theory, I'll be working with microfinance (If you don't know what that means, stop reading now and look up www.kiva.org; come back after you've lent money to at least one small business!), helping administer ASSET, a consortium of small hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-oriented businesses too small to compete with international operators one by one. If I'm lucky, this will involve talking to people about their needs and goals and methods. If I'm less lucky, it will involve troubleshooting computers and office work. If I'm even less lucky, it will involve teaching English. I want to get away from teaching and computers for the summer, but I've come to help, so I'll do whatever work is most needed.

The door of no return

Today I ventured to Ile de Goree, famous as a slave-port. It's a tiny island with no cars and many bougainvillea and baobab trees, lending it an oddly serene air. One has to work pretty hard to imagine eight million humans being trafficked through buildings which to all outward appearances look lovely, much like the French quarter of New Orleans.

The picture shows the inside of "La maison des esclaves" with its infamous "door of no return," through which so many hapless Africans were made to pass. Many died of plague before even reaching the door, due to being packed into horrendously small cells doubling as latrines. Many more grew sick aboard ship, at which point they were thrown to the sharks. Men and women were imprisoned separately at Goree--hence the oddly elegant symmetry of the architecture? Everyone was weighed upon entrance; those under 60 kg were put in separate chambers and force-fed until they were big enough to sell. There was a special room for young women so that the masters could have an easy time choosing which to rape. Some women were actually acquiescent to this treatment, because favor with a master might earn them freedom. They would have already lost their husbands and children, and, as has now been made famous by Alex Haley, their names.

This information all comes from my guide, "Papi," a 62-year-old Senegalese man. He claims to be the "pope" or "chief" of guides, and to have accompanied Clinton, Mandela, and Mitterand. (True to stereotype, Mitterand gave the smallest tip.) I wonder if Clinton or Mitterand found it as strange as I did to be guided through the slave house by a black man; at one point he urged a bunch of other tourists aside so that I could pose in the door-of-no-return for a picture, and I couldn't resist feeling an uncomfortable sense of privilege. He will not take African-Americans and whites in the same group, he says, because emotions run so high. Black visitors have been known to break into inconsolable sobs, fall to the ground in rapt prayer, and bang their heads against the wall until blood comes. Mandela crouched in one of the punishment cells for fifteen minutes weeping because it reminded him so acutely of Robben Island.

Like most people in Dakar, Papi speaks Wolof and French. He also speaks English, but I asked him to speak French so I could practice. My comprehension continues to outpace my speaking by a wide margin, but vocabulary and accent pose significant challenges with both.

The tour around Goree in general, and the slave house in particular, felt very rushed to me, and the whole place is swarming with tourists and souvenir-sellers. So it goes with world-famous places, I suppose, but I would have liked to take it a little slower, soaking up both the tragic aura of the slave house and the quiet beauty of the island. You can stay at a fine hotel there for less than I'm paying in Dakar, and I was tempted to do so, but the ferry connections would make it a bit awkward. The narrow, winding streets of 18th-century buildings, their saffron, ochre, and verdigris paints worn to textured patinas, would surely be enchanting in the late afternoon and early morning light. Locals commute here to enjoy the beach, an incongruously exuberant throng.

It boggles the mind that such brutality occurred, and continued for centuries. But I remind myself not to be too secure in the greater justice and humanity of modern life. Since arriving in Dakar I've walked past several dozen beggars, and children lying in the gutter too exhausted even to hold out their hands. I like to think I'm accomplishing something by greeting them, acknowledging their humanity, even if I rarely give. On the way out of a patisserie, feeling guilty for the delicacies I was about to consume, I watched a local step right over a supplicant with no hands or feet as if he were trash. I thought about marching right back to the patisserie, buying a loaf of bread, and handing it to the beggar. Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Why this blog has no original pictures

Last summer, my trusty Pentax Super Program, which I’ve been using faithfully for nearly twenty years, since I got it as a gift for graduating from high school, failed—as many as a third of the 600-some slides I took of the “silk road” were hopelessly underexposed, indicating that the electronic “guts” had finally given up the ghost. For about five years now I’ve been rebuffing the urgings of friends and fellow-travellers that I join the 21st century and “go digital.” This isn’t just a camera, I tell them; this is my friend: from my first trip with it through the Rockies on Outward Bound, where it suffered its first “ding,” to the trip to the forbidden island where I knocked it off a chair, to jungles and deserts and glaciers and overstuffed backpacks and X-rays and Customs inspections, it’s valiantly accompanied me on every major trip of my life. It can’t do any of the digital tricks, but it has gotten shots few computerized cameras can. But when you go literally halfway around the world for a shot, as I do, you can’t afford to lose any due to equipment failure. The most painful of last summer’s losses were my photos of the ship cemetery in the remains of the Aral Sea; it cost me a lot of money, time, and trouble, to get out there, and, since the rusting hulks are being slowly cut up for scrap metal, I’ll never duplicate those shots even if I go back. So for a year now I’ve had in mind the need to buy a new camera.

My old Pentax cost about $250 new in 1991. If you go to the fascinating and imaginatively named website www.westegg.com/inflation, you can see that such a price would equal about $388 in today’s money. Yet “entry-level” DSLRs begin around $699, and anything “advanced” easily runs over $1000. Salesmen brush aside my cost concerns, boasting that the new cameras have far more features than my old one. Trouble is, most of these are features I don’t want, and, worse, many of them do more to get in the way than facilitate good photos. And in certain small but significant ways, modern cameras are actually worse—smaller, dimmer viewfinders, e.g., fewer direct manual controls, and, in the case of the Nikon D5000 I had my eye on, no depth-of-field preview. Then, of course, there’s the need for a recharging cord and power source, memory cards, computer connection, Biblical instruction manual, etc. Was I the only one left who appreciated the simplicity of film? Browsing www.kenrockwell.com lent support to my skepticism. So I started trolling the Internet for used cameras, and what should I find but my very own Pentax, body only, for $64 (I could continue using my existing lenses). Once again I’d be unable to post to this blog, email, etc., but I could buy a lot of film for the difference in cost between that and a new digital beast. This was a deal too good to pass up: the camera I’d always wanted, $200 less twenty years later!

Asking for a “physical scan” of my film at Newark airport made me doubt my decision momentarily: this took nearly ten minutes and involved wiping little swabs over my rolls of film and passing them through some malfunctioning machine, as well as patting me down manually, even though I’d already passed through the metal detector and X-rays like everyone else. “The film is the question, not me, right?” I asked the stone-faced woman in the smart blue TSA uniform. “It’s your camera, isn’t it?” she replied, as if that made some sort of sense. Gone are the days when you could reason with security officers.

But today, in Dakar, when I stopped to take a picture of several hundred women’s shoes lined up for sale on the sidewalk, two little boys begged me to snap their photo too. I agreed, but showed them the boring black back of my old camera, trying to explain in my halting French that they wouldn’t be able to see the result—I’ve learned on previous trips that some people in foreign countries have become so accustomed to digital cameras that they grow angry when shot with film. But they just smiled and nodded and urged me on. Flustered, I didn’t get exactly the exposure I wanted, but I’m pretty sure I got a workable one. I won’t know for six weeks, when I get home and develop the film. That’s the forgotten beauty of photography: enjoy the experience of taking the photo, and later, after you’ve all but fogotten the people, place, and moment, live it again.